As Klamath River dams come down, old lands emerge and the landscape begins to heal

by Debra Utacia Krol at

Tribes and environmentalists cheered last month as crews blasted out the concrete plugs holding water behind the JC Boyle and Copco I dams, the largest of four decommissioned dams on the Klamath River, allowing silt-filled water to flow down the ancient riverbed.

Hope also flowed downstream alongside the muddy waters that the gigantic removal project supercharges the goal of restoring the environmental health of the river basin that traverses Northern California and southern Oregon.

The water that once covered over 2,000 acres of land surrounding the river has begun to recede, revealing artifacts like old farm equipment, foundations and bridge pilings left over from pre-dam days. But local residents worry about the fate of local wildlife like deer and eagles that get stuck in the muddy grounds and mourn the loss of non-native fish that inhabited the reservoirs’ warm-water layers.

The tribes, environmentalists and their allies celebrated the shrinking waters as an essential next step in what they say will be a decades-long process of restoring one of the West’s largest salmon fisheries and a region the size of West Virginia back to health.

Yurok tribal member and fisheries director Barry McCovey was amazed at how fast the river and the lands surrounding the Copco dam were revealed.

“The river had already found its path and reclaimed its original riverbed, which is pretty amazing to see,” he said. The 6,500-member tribe’s lands span the Klamath’s final 44 miles to the Pacific Ocean, and the Yurok and other tribes that depend on the Klamath for subsistence and cultural activities have long advocated for the dams’ removal and for ecological restoration.

Amid the largest-ever dam removal in the U.S., rumors and misunderstandings have spread through social media, in grange halls and in local establishments. In the meantime, public agencies and private firms race to correct misinformation by providing facts and real data on how the Klamath is recovering from what one official called “major heart surgery.”